Hay foot straw foot

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Here's something for our "Words for X" file, along with some historical fiction and a bit of relevant psychology.

A blog post at Discover Magazine recently discussed some interesting new psycholinguistic research ("New Nicaraguan sign language shows how language affects thought", Discover, 6/22/2010):

[Nicaraguan Sign Language] is not a direct translation of Spanish – it is a language in its own right, complete with its own grammar and vocabulary. Its child inventors created it naturally by combining and adding to gestures that they had used at home. Gradually, the language became more regular, more complex and faster. Ever since, NSL has been a goldmine for scientists, providing an unparalleled opportunity to study the emergence of a new language. And in a new study led by Jennie Pyers from Wellesley College, it even tells us how language shapes our thought.

By studying children who learned NSL at various stages of its development, Pyers has shown that the vocabulary they pick up affects the way they think. Specifically, those who learned NSL before it developed specific gestures for left and right perform more poorly on a spatial awareness test than children who grew up knowing how to sign those terms.

Over at BoingBoing, Maggie Koerth-Baker quoted the Discover article and added some commentary ("What the invention of Nicaraguan Sign Language teaches us about the human brain").  Several of the commenters took off with the "words for X" idea:

Fascinating. This moves me to prune my vocabulary and limit my exposure to talking points.

(I am assuming that, if the lack of useful words impairs awareness, then the lack of vacuous/fallacious words will improve it. And that I'm not too old for it to do any good.)

But there's a basic problem with this way of looking at the research: there are no "specific gestures" or "vocabulary" items involved.

Rather,  (according to Jennie Pyers, Anna Shusterman, Ann Senghas, Elizabeth Spelke, and Karen Emmorey, "Evidence from an emerging sign language reveals that language supports spatial cognition", PNAS published online 6/25/2010):

Sign languages provide a unique window into the relation between language and spatial cognition because they differ from spoken languages in how spatial relations are linguistically marked. Instead of using spatial terms such as “in” or “left,” sign languages use signing space to represent spatial relations iconically. Signers create a representation in which real-world spatial relations are mapped onto the relative positions of their hands. For example, to describe a cat on a table, a signer would place one hand representing the cat onto the other hand representing the table, with no separate sign (e.g., “on”) that labels the spatial relation. Left-right relations are also marked by the positions of the hands in signing space. Within this system, signers can represent a scene either from their own perspective (describing an object to the right by producing a sign on their right side) or from the perceiver’s perspective (describing an object to the right by producing a sign on their left side). In most sign languages signers choose to represent the scene from their own perspective.

NSL has not yet converged on a spatial strategy like the one found in most established sign languages. Individual first-cohort signers are inconsistent in marking left–right relationships; objects on the left side are represented sometimes with signs on the left, and sometimes with signs on the right. Consequently, the first cohort’s utterances are ambiguous with respect to left–right relations. Second-cohort signers are mixed as a group and will negotiate a strategy for each conversation, but as individuals they tend to be consistent in their chosen strategy.

So to sum up, there are no specific signs for "left" and "right" in any stage of Nicaraguan Sign Language. (Or if such signs exist, as Katy points out in the comments, they are not mentioned in this research report.)  Rather, individual signers in the "first cohort" map horizontal position into sign space inconsistently, sometimes from one point of view, sometimes from another; while in the "second cohort", individual signers tend to be more consistent in their preferences, though they are still mixed as a group.

The paper doesn't say how big these differences in signing consistency are (though they do correlate consistency in spatial aspects of signing with performance on the task described below). However, the phrase "tend to be more consistent" suggests that the evolution in usage is a change in shades of gray rather than a black-and-white difference. And similarly, the experimental results were also a change in shades of gray:

The two experiments involve simple tasks

…  that require the use of a landmark, a brightly colored wall, to find a hidden object. In the disoriented search condition, participants entered a small, enclosed room with a single red wall as a landmark. For each trial, they watched an experimenter hide a token in one corner, and then were blindfolded and turned slowly until disoriented. They then removed the blindfold and indicated the corner where they thought the token was hidden. In the rotated box condition, the procedure was similar: the token was hidden in a small-scale tabletop model of the room, the participant was blindfolded, and the model (not the participant) was turned. There were eight trials per condition, two in each corner.

In interpreting the reported numbers of overlaps in scores — one in the first experiment, and four in the second –  it's worth keeping in mind the rather small number of subjects. The first experiment involved five first-cohort signers and five second-cohort signers, while the second experiment involved seven of each category.  If I understand what "overlap" means here, this suggests that the differences in mean values must be driven by a small number of extreme scores — unfortunately, following the standard (in my opinion very bad) practice among psychologists, individual scores are not given.

According to common sense, and also according to Guy Vingerhoets and Lemke Sarecchia, "Individual differences in degree of handedness and somesthetic asymmetry predict individual differences in left-right confusion", Behavioural Brain Research 204(1):212-216, 2009:

Confusion or frustration connected with daily demands involving left-right discrimination is a common observation even in neurologically intact adults.

There's a historical anecdote associated with this observation. According to Bruce Catton, Mr. Lincoln's Army, 1951:

"Straw-foot" was the Civil War term for rookie. The idea was that some of the new recruits were of such fantastic greenness that they did not know the left foot from the right and hence could not be taught to keep time propertly or to step off on the left foot as all soldiers should. The drill sergeants, in desperation, had finally realized that these green country lads did at least know hay from straw and so had tied wisps of hay to the left foot and straw to the right foot and marched them off to the chant of "Hay-foot, straw-foot, hay-foot, straw-foot." Hence: straw-foot ~ rookie, especially a dumb rookie.

Unfortunately for Mr. Catton's credibility, the same story is told about American soldiers in the War of American Independence. From Wilbur Fiske Crafts in 1922:

You remember that the young men of the American Revolution who came to Concord and Lexington to the join the Army were many of them so unschooled that they did not know the right foot from the left, and so could not obey the drill-master's "Right –left". The disgusted officers siad, "Send these greenhorns home, for if they cannot keep step they will be of no use as soldiers" But there was one officer there who used his head for something besides a hat rack. [...] "These farmer boys do not know right from left, but they do know hay from straw. Tie a little hay on every right foot, and a little straw on every left foot, and send them to the awkward squad to be drilled." "Hay-foot — straw-foot, hay-foot–straw-foot" they drilled, very awkwardly at first, and then more firmly, and at last they marched to victory at Yorktown.

Both Catton and Crafts are trumped by an article on "Irish Step Dancing" in Chambers' Journal of November 1885:

To dance the steps really well, one must be nimble and active. I remember seeing a number of the peasants, who, to try and perfect themselves in their dance, danced on the road near some trees, and constantly held on to some of the low branches, to enable them to jump high and use their feet to advantage. There is a story told of a certain mayor who did not know how to dance; and as there was to be the customary ball on St. Patrick's night at the vice-regal court, at which he was, as is usual, to dance with her Excellency, he hired a private room, and when his shop was closed at night, went there, where a dancing-master met him to teach him his steps, unknown, as he hoped, to any one. Unfortunately, it leaked out, and some people annoyed the poor mayor sorely by standing outside the window and saying: "Right foot, left foot, hay foot, straw foot. Faix, thin, an' Paddy 'tis you as can soon fut the floor." The origin of hay foot, straw foot, was, that when, as is sometimes the case, the right foot or hand was not known from the left, a dancing-master often tied a wisp of hay on one foot and of straw on the other, and thus forcibly impressed the difference.

And in Notes and Queries for Dec. 5, 1857, W.W. (Malta) contributed "A Highlander's Drill by chalking his left foot",

"I shall never forget," says Strang in his Glasgow and its Clubs, "the fun which during my boyhood my companions and myself had in witnessing the daily drilling of the new-caught Highlanders, in the low Green, or the pity we felt for the cruel usage of the poor fellows by the cane-wielding sergeants or corporals who were utting them through their facings. No doubt some of them were stupid enough, and was worse, it was their misfortune to comprehend but indifferently the English word of command, so much that it was found absolutely necessary to chalk their left feet, and instead of crying out when marching, left, right, the common call was caukit foot foremost."

This anecdote reminds me of the manner which long since was adopted by the sergeants of another race, when drilling their raw recruits: it being done by tying straw to the right, and hay to the left foot, and then giving the word of command by straw foot, — hay foot, as the movement of their men might require.

The OED has an entry with citations back to 1851:

hay-foot, straw-foot: with right and left foot alternately (at the word of command). Also as v. In allusion to the alleged use of hay and straw to enable a rustic recruit to distinguish the right foot from the left.

1851 Knickerbocker XXXVIII. 79 At company-training and general-training..it was all ‘hay-foot, straw-foot’ with him. 1887 J. D. BILLINGS Hardtack & Coffee 208 Scores of men..would ‘hay-foot’ every time when they should ‘straw-foot’. 1898 J. MACMANUS Bend of Road 40 Poor fool, he's off, hay foot straw foot, an' small grass grows round his heels till he's there. 1911 R. D. SAUNDERS Col. Todhunter vii. 98 You never got in a thousand miles of one of 'em for all your ‘heppin’ and ‘hay-foot’ and ‘straw-foot’ drillin'. 1911 H. S. HARRISON Queed i. 12 They march like little lambs when I say the word. Hay-foot–straw-foot.

Thus the origin of this practice and the associated phrase is uncertain, but it is certainly before the U.S. Civil War.  Whatever the origin, the implication is that in the 19th century and earlier, recruits could not be depended on to interpret "left" and "right" reliably, and various audio-visual aids were used to help them maintain a consistent mapping from words to feet.

Now, I can testify from personal experience that by 1969, draftees into the U.S. Army no longer needed hay, straw, or chalk. At least, drill sergeants attributed our occasional errors in lateral asymmetry to stupidity or inadequate numbers of push-ups, rather than to lack of education.

What changed (if anything did) between 1860 and 1960? It certainly wasn't the English language — right has been around since before Beowulf, and left since the 13th century, and both have long been commonly used in their contemporary meaning.  Perhaps the change was due to literacy, which reinforces implicit familiarity with the notion of "left to right". Perhaps it was the automobile, which even more emphatically reinforces a distinction between "driving on the left" and "driving on the right".  But both of these involve reference to an external coordinate system rather than an egocentric one.

It would be nice to have some less anecdotal evidence about the history of recruit drillability, and some confirmation from contemporary populations about the possible role of literacy, driving etc. in establishing reliable verbal habits and reliable left-right problem-solving of various kinds. The previously cited paper by Vingerhoets and Sarecchia observes that

Two major explanations for left-right confusion have been proposed. The first hypothesis states that the problem of left and right is related to the bilateral symmetry of the body and the nervous system. Interhemispheric exchange of memory traces through homotopic commissural connections generalizes events to their mirror-images. Animals and men solve left-right discrimination problems by making asymmetrical responses in orientation or posture toward stimuli. In humans, left-to-right eye movements and especially hand preference are believed to produce a constant left-right response bias. The second hypothesis refers to structural properties of the environment such as gravity, that offers an asymmetrical differentiation of the vertical dimension that is absent along the horizontal dimension. According to this view the vertical dimension contains a natural referent (the ground plane) and a natural direction away from that referent (up). Experimental research has shown that horizontal discriminations are made more slowly than vertical discriminations, but also that in vertical discriminations up is judged consistently faster than down — suggesting an asymmetry of the perceived vertical dimension, whereas in the horizontal dimension such a consistent natural referent is lacking making left-right discrimination more difficult. Clearly, both hypotheses are not in contradiction, but differ in the relative importance of internal versus external cues on perceived (a)symmetry in the horizontal plane.

V & S tested 62 female undergraduates on their ability to press appropriate buttons in response to verbal stimuli ("left" – "right" or "up" – "down") or visual stimuli (arrows pointing left or right, up or down). They "defined the level of individual left-right confusion as the difference between a subject’s average [reaction times] on words minus arrows for the horizontal dimension trials thus correcting for individual differences in response time and focusing on the conceptual, rather than the perceptual–motor part of the decision process".

(Note that this task could not be applied in the case of the NSL subjects, since there are apparently no sign equivalents for "left" and "right", and thus the kind of "left-right confusion" that it measures is apparently different from the kind of confusion tested by Pyers et al.)

The first thing that V & S found was that their subjects were not in much need of hay or straw. The error rates were fairly low in both dimensions (4.9% for the horizontal and 5.7% for the vertical dimension), and the reaction-time differences between words and arrows were also similar in both dimensions:

A multivariate regression showed that measures of handedness and left-right differences in tactile sensitivity were significant predictors of (their measure of) left-right confusion, accounting for 21.5% of the variance.

V & S limited the subject population to females because some previous studies show fairly large sex differences in left-right confusion.  But as Marco Hirstein et al. observe (Sex differences in left-right confusion depend on hemispheric asymmetry", Cortex 45:891-899, 2009), "studies reporting
more left–right confusion for women have been criticised because the tasks that have been
used involved mental rotation, a spatial ability in which men typically excel". So in Hirstein et al's study,

34 right-handed women and 31 right-handed men completed two behavioural left– right discrimination tasks, in which mental rotation was either experimentally controlled for or was not needed. To measure the degree of hemispheric asymmetry participants also completed a dichotic listening test. Although women were not less lateralised than men, both tasks consistently revealed that women were more susceptible to left–right confusion than men.

But curiously,

… only women with a significant right ear advantage in the dichotic listening test had more difficulties in LRC tasks than men. There was no sex difference in less lateralised participants. This finding suggests that the impact of functional verbal asymmetries on LRC is mediated by sex.

Since this result indicates that women who are more lateralized (i.e. have greater somatic left-right asymmetry) are more prone to left-right confusions, it's prima facie contradictory to the results of V & S, who found that women who are more lateralized are less prone to left-right confusions.

I should note in passing that the male-female differences on the tasks in this experiment seem qualitatively comparable to the inter-cohort differences in the Pyers et al. study. Here's the table of results for simple commands ("raise your right foot") and complex commands ("touch your left ear with your right hand"):

And here are the results from an experiment where subjects were asked to identify picture of hands as "left hand" or "right hand", where the non-rotated hands were in an invariant thumb-up palm-forward position, whereas the "rotated" hands were a mixed bag of thumb up or down, palm facing towards the viewer or away from the viewer:

After all of this, I'm somewhat more confused about left-right confusion that I was to start with. But I'm clear on a few points:

  • Whatever is responsible for the apparent difference in performance between cohorts of NSL users, it's not the development of new vocabulary items;
  • Whatever is responsible for the apparent difference in left-right confusion between army recruits 150 years ago and recruits today, it's not the development of new vocabulary items;
  • Whatever is responsible for measured male-female differences in left-right confusion among contemporary American undergraduates, it's not a difference in vocabulary.

This doesn't after the conclusion of Pyers et al. that

Consistent spatial language is necessary for some aspects of mature spatial reasoning, even for adults who routinely navigate through a complex urban environment.

and that

Language may serve as a medium of spatial representation, as an aid to cognitive processing, or as an anchor for systematizing spatial concepts that are otherwise ephemeral.

But let's not get carried away about the positive impact of "useful words", the negative impact of "vacuous/fallacious words", or any of the other common pop misintrerpretations of Sapir-Whorf.  The relationship between language and thought, here and in general, is more subtle and complex than that.



  1. Army1987 said,

    June 29, 2010 @ 9:49 am

    I typically take *much* longer than 550 milliseconds to tell right from left. (Typically I do that by pretending I'm writing and checking which hand I would keep the pen with.) I often get around the need of using those words at all by e.g. saying "on that side" and pointing, when I can.
    But I guess that in a test where I had to press the left or right button on reading the words "left" or "right", I would get faster after the first two or three trials.

    [(myl) Note that those numbers are not reaction times, but rather difference in reaction times between the "word" condition and the "arrow" condition. Also, the experimenters try to flush the subjects' short-term verbal memory between trials by having them do mental subtraction problems.]

  2. JS Bangs said,

    June 29, 2010 @ 10:36 am

    So now I must admit the depths of my ignorance: I don't think I can tell hay from straw. I also have lots of problems with left and right, and I can't even fix that with a 19th century farmboy's trick!

  3. Joaquim said,

    June 29, 2010 @ 10:37 am

    I recently broke my right elbow. As a result I am now more dexterous with my left hand than with the right (temporarily I hope). I have also been heard to interchange the words "right" and "left" (well, the equivalent in my language) a few times, and I'd be ready to accept this as caused by my temporary left-handedness.
    Does this support the first V&S hypothesis?

  4. Mark P said,

    June 29, 2010 @ 10:41 am

    I am right handed and generally know my right foot from my left foot, but sometimes I have trouble when I am directed to "right click" with the mouse. In my case, I assume it's partly from having to use a finger other than the index finger, which is obviously the finger I use most often to click. But I think there's something else at work, too. It might be some something along the lines of, "I'm holding the mouse in my right hand, so when I click, it's a right click."

  5. MattF said,

    June 29, 2010 @ 10:48 am

    I've learned (after many years of worse-than-chance errors) that I have to visualize any scene before daring to use the words "left" or "right" to describe spatial relationships in the scene. And I'm good at spatial relationships. But, apparently, I'm not verbally enantio-competent.

  6. JimG said,

    June 29, 2010 @ 11:16 am

    I'm not comfortable with the discussion and conclusions. Are the investigators confusing cognition with either expression of the concept or action based on cognition (or both expression and action)? Or is that their definition of cognition? MYL wrote:
    > … The relationship between language and thought,
    > here and in general, is more subtle and complex than that.
    Amen, and doubled when one includes action in the chain.

    I'm not sure how early I learned the words for right/left in English, I learned them in French and German at around 6-7-8 years, but I had lingering confusion for many years about automatically using the appropriate hand/foot. Despite this, I always tested at the top of the charts on spatial analysis.

    Send the experimenters back to work, having them measure the effect of having a test group learn to walk/march (and think spatially) while saying left-right-left-right …

    BTW, I always thought hay-foot-straw-foot would only add to any confusion a subject had. Imagine saying, "Take 3 paces and turn to your hay." (Is the expression really just a myth?)

  7. NW said,

    June 29, 2010 @ 11:18 am

    I became interested in heraldry as a child, and the dexter/sinister convention made perfect sense. (The dexter side is the right for a person holding a shield therefore the left for a viewer looking at the coat of arms.) To this day I sometimes get shifty eyes and mutter 'dexter is left' to make sure I'm using 'left' correctly.

  8. Mr Punch said,

    June 29, 2010 @ 11:32 am

    Bruce Catton is explaining the term "straw-foot" (rookie) as it was used during the Civil War — not actually contending that "hay foot, straw foot" was invented during that time.

    Catton died in 1978, by the way, and the book cited (as 2008) was published in 1951. It doesn't much matter in this case, but the practice of citing the dates of reprints is often deceptive — we'd be better off without the misleading information.

    [(myl) Origin myths: I disagree. When he writes that "The drill sergeants, in desperation, finally realized that these green country lads ...", Catton is clearly telling us that Civil War drill sergeants invented a new method, not that they continued using a method that drill instructors and dancing-masters had been using elsewhere in the world for several decades at a minimum, and probably for a century or so.

    Book dates: My bad. Fixed now.]

  9. David L said,

    June 29, 2010 @ 11:34 am

    @Matt P: I have the same trouble with the 'right click' instruction. My guess is that while we're accustomed to thinking of our hands as coming in left and right versions, we don't generally think of the distinction between our index and middle fingers as a left/right dichotomy. In addition, I would also guess that there's an automatic temptation to think, since we live in a right-centric universe, that 'right click' would be the normal action and 'left-click' would be the odd one — but actually it's the other way around. I've trained myself, sort of, to think, "oh, that's the unusual one" when I see 'right-click.'

    Of course, you can always tape a bit of hay to one side of your mouse and a bit of straw to the other.

  10. David L said,

    June 29, 2010 @ 11:37 am

    Uh, I meant @Mark P, of course… Failure to distinguish your name from the one below.

  11. Dan T. said,

    June 29, 2010 @ 11:43 am

    Hayfoot Henry was a 1940s comic book character, presumably named after these folk tales about hay and straw feet.

  12. Ellen K. said,

    June 29, 2010 @ 12:02 pm

    When I was in Ireland, where they drive on the opposite sides of the roads versus here in the U.S., I remember calling a right turn a left turn. Because for me, direction is not the most salient difference between a right turn and a left turn, and the Irish right turn has the features of an American left turn, thus my mislabeling it a left-turn.

    As for right-clicking a computer mouse, I seem to recall at one point having to work it out, but at this point, it means "click with the other finger".

  13. Q. Pheevr said,

    June 29, 2010 @ 12:08 pm

    The privative "chaukit foot forward" system seems much more economical to me than the binary "hay foot/straw foot" system, and privativity seems like the obvious solution to JS Bangs's problem. Telling right from left is tricky for some; telling hay from straw is tricky for some; but telling chalk or hay or straw from nothing is easy. Similarly, the opposition "click/right-click" makes it much easier to remember that "right-click" is the marked one (i.e., the one for which Mark P and David L use their middle fingers, and the one for which I have to shift my index finger over to the right), whereas "left-click/right-click" offers no clue.

  14. Mark said,

    June 29, 2010 @ 1:10 pm

    @Q. Pheevr;

    You are missing part of the training method. The binary system allows you slowly train them to use the right words… not one right word and one wrong. You go from initially chanting "straw foot, hay foot" to intermediate forms like "straw foot, right foot; left foot, hay foot" and then finally on to the proper "right foot, left foot".

    And all of this skips over the troubles of making sure everyone in the troop has the same grass on the same foot. ;-)

  15. Theodore said,

    June 29, 2010 @ 1:17 pm

    Maybe a connection between left-right confusion and education comes about because your right hand is also your "write" hand: When you learn to read, you usually also learn to write, and therefore develop a clear preference for one hand when you use a pen. I would speculate that many manual tasks performed by an illiterate farmer are two-handed or ambidextrous (hammers and knives being two possible common exceptions).

    BTW, this post has a soundtrack.

  16. Karen said,

    June 29, 2010 @ 1:18 pm

    It's fascinating to me how many people (and I'm one) have trouble with these words. I always know which way to tell someone to turn, but I'm apt to say "right" when I mean "left" and then have to correct myself when they get in the wrong lane or begin the turn from a single lane.

    My aunt and uncle simply ceased saying the words at all and said "turn to the driver's side". And that works, for some odd reason. Before, I tended to gesture – and often would be gesturing opposite of my words; the gesture would be correct.

  17. J. W. Brewer said,

    June 29, 2010 @ 1:37 pm

    At least according to 20th century English-language children's books about the culture of ancient Rome (I have certainly not delved into original sources that might bear on the question), 18 centuries and change before the U.S. Civil War, Romans took great care to walk into someone else's house left-foot first, because of a superstitious belief that bad luck would otherwise ensue (possible ancestral source of military convention of stepping off w/ the left foot rather than right?). So some combination of linguistic or neurological or what have you resources must have enabled them to distinguish between their feet with sufficient consistency to get a reasonable degree of compliance with the taboo in question.

    Someone with an extensive research budget for cross-cultural studies might see whether/how the ability to make right-from-left distinctions in various experimental settings varied with the writing conventions known to the research subjects (e.g. English left-to-right v. Hebrew right-to-left v. Japanese often-vertical).

  18. David Eddyshaw said,

    June 29, 2010 @ 1:43 pm

    Readers may be reassured to learn that there is an absolute convention in medicine that "right" and "left" *always* mean "*patient's* right/left".

    This actually takes quite a bit of internalizing on the part of new medical students (typically you're facing the patient, of course.)

    [For some of us, this is as far as we ever get in putting ourselves in the patient's position mentally ...]

    The matter can get really tangled when the patient is mentally putting himself in the doctor's position … asking a patient to *look* right or left particularly often leads to this sort of confusion.

  19. Mark P said,

    June 29, 2010 @ 1:55 pm


    "No, don't turn that way! I meant the other left!"

  20. D.O. said,

    June 29, 2010 @ 2:14 pm

    The legend of using hey-straw for teaching left-right to new soldiers (buy the way, which was which, or did it change?) exists also in Russian. But here's an idea I picked up in one of the forums: there was no need to do so. Historically an overwhelming majority of recruits in the Russian Army were Orthodox Christians. That means that they could quite ably cross themselves according to the words "Father and Son and the Holy Ghost" which are accompanied by the right hand touching forehead, abdomen, right shoulder and left shoulder. So the drill master could use just words ghost-holy for left-right. Unless it would be considered a sacrilege.

  21. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 29, 2010 @ 2:14 pm

    Maybe farmers didn't have to talk about left and right for most purposes (even if you favor one hand for using a knife, you might not have to say which it is), but I'd be surprised if they couldn't be relied on to know "near" and "off". Even if they didn't have saddle horses, wouldn't they have needed to say that the mule's off hind leg was lame?

  22. Toma said,

    June 29, 2010 @ 2:36 pm

    For city folk who can't tell hay from straw, maybe we could put shit in one shoe and Shinola in the other?

  23. Mr Fnortner said,

    June 29, 2010 @ 3:23 pm

    People I visit who live in Salt Lake City are facile in referring to streets and rotation in term of N,S,E and W. Directions often take the form of something like: "Take 9th East to 21st South and turn west." This is almost incomprehensible to me. When they visit me and I say "Take Main St. to Maple St. and turn left," invariably someone will ask, "Is that East or West?" My answer is "How would I know?"

    We have tried to analyze the problem, and SLC's grid layout system does not seem to be the greatest contributor. My town has numbered streets as well, but without any regard to compass points. The closest we have come is that SLC is essentially flat and treeless and one can see the surrounding mountain ranges at almost all times. This provides a steady reinforcement of compass direction. My town is hilly, forested, and without backdrop. I have no idea which is north or south at many times.

  24. Q. Pheevr said,

    June 29, 2010 @ 3:40 pm

    @ Mr Fnortner – Yeah, I find that fairly incomprehensible, too, especially the part about turning west on 21st South….

    @ Mark – You can still have a binary naming system even if you have a privative visual system: "chalk foot/plain foot," for example.

  25. Boris said,

    June 29, 2010 @ 4:01 pm

    @Mr Fnortner,
    Presumably the directions are part of the street name or are signed on the road sign. This is especially useful on limited access highways where both or neither directions of the road you're looking for involve a right turn. And then you come across something like this:
    See, you're going south on Park Place North. Or is it the other way around?

  26. Katy said,

    June 29, 2010 @ 4:41 pm

    Hi there,

    This is a fascinating subject, and I'll be honest that I don't know much about it. However, I have studied a bit of American Sign Language, and I'd like to point something out about the following:

    "Instead of using spatial terms such as “in” or “left,” sign languages use signing space to represent spatial relations iconically. Signers create a representation in which real-world spatial relations are mapped onto the relative positions of their hands."

    While it's true that in American Sign Language, as far as I know, it would probably be awkward to use the signs for "left" and "right" rather than showing a spacial layout, the signs do in fact exist. I'd imagine it would be a dead giveaway that one is hearing if one were to compose a message with the sign LEFT or the sign RIGHT, but it is not impossible.

    I notice that they (Jennie Pyers, Anna Shusterman, Ann Senghas, Elizabeth Spelke, and Karen Emmorey) never say such words are absent in NSL, either. They do point out that "NSL has not yet converged on a spatial strategy like the one found in most established sign languages." I take this to mean that Nicaraguan signers do not yet have a rule dictating that spatial descriptions should be given from the signer's perspective, rather than that Nicaraguan signers have no signs for "left" and "right."

    It is possible, then, that "there are no specific signs for "left" and "right" in any stage of Nicaraguan Sign Language" could have been a false conclusion.

    Just my two cents. I'm really self conscious about my language at the moment since I imagine most people reading this are fantastic with the English language, so I'll stop typing and stressing out about it now. But, I will say one last thing: I love languagelog with all my heart; thank you for hours of great reading!


  27. D.O. said,

    June 29, 2010 @ 4:45 pm

    Somewhere in upstate NY there is a part of a road assigned numbers in 2 systems (state and county or US and state) with a curious property. The same direction on this particular part is designated as East in one system and West in another. It is easy to suggest how that might happened, but still, isn't it fun to ride to the East and to the West at the same time.

  28. Katy said,

    June 29, 2010 @ 4:45 pm

    P.S. In case you were curious, the sign I learned for "left" is done by making an L with your left thumb and pointer finger, and moving it to your left. The sign I learned for "right" is done by making the ASL letter R (cross your right pointer and middle fingers) and moving your hand right. That's probably helpful for signers, too, since you need to know right from left to sign them, but not to say them.

  29. Army1987 said,

    June 29, 2010 @ 5:08 pm

    @JS Bangs: Hay is green and straw is yellow. (There's a kind of pasta in Italy called paglia e fieno 'straw and hay' because (guess why).)

    [(myl) I can't answer for the Italians, but when I helped with hay baling as a teenager, the hay was what I'd call yellow. These days, the bales are big and round instead of smaller and square, but the hay still mostly looks yellow to me. In pre-baler days, I guess that the hay would have been stored in stacks, which are also traditionally yellow.

    (Though there do seem to be some pictures around of green hay...)

    Hay is basically dried grass, put up to feed animals over the winter. I remember being told that after the grass is cut, it's important to let it dry in the field so that the bales won't rot. (That's why you "make hay while the sun shines", I think.) So by the time the cut grass is baled, it's yellow.

    As for straw, it's dried stalks of wheat and the like, which are used for animal bedding and so on, because they're too tough to eat (or maybe not nutritious?). So I think of the difference between hay and straw as being one of size or consistency of the blades vs. stems, rather than color.

    But may you're right that maybe in the foot-ID usage, the contrast was between green cut grass and yellow wheat stalks?]

  30. Nicholas Waller said,

    June 29, 2010 @ 5:16 pm

    I was helped through my driving test at 17 by a kindly examiner who, on spotting I hadn't responded properly to his command to move into the left lane – due to my often mixing up left and right while learning to drive – repeated it again slowly and with emphasis so I was aware I was doing it wrong.

    @ Mark P – in filmmaking there's often a "the other left" call, when a director, say, asks actors to move to the left and they move the wrong way for him, for instance to their personal left and not camera left (or indeed the other way round).

  31. Kenny Easwaran said,

    June 29, 2010 @ 5:32 pm

    D.O. – the same thing happens just outside Berkeley, on the east side of San Francisco Bay. Interstate 80 east and 580 west happen to coincide in a northbound segment stretching from somewhere in Oakland to the base of the Richmond-San Rafael bridge.

  32. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    June 29, 2010 @ 5:43 pm

    > Q. Pheevr: I don't know about Salt Lake City, but in Cleveland, a street named "East nth Street" or "West nth Street" is a (nominally) north-south street, n streets east or west of Public Square. There is no general, inter-city convention for the use of directions in street names; each city has its own system, and some cities have several at once.

  33. Joyce Melton said,

    June 30, 2010 @ 4:04 am

    Being a farm kid, I always suspected the hay-foot straw-foot legend of being hogwash. What kind of hay? What kind of straw? The main visible difference between hay and straw is color, most hay is green around here because it is alfalfa, most straw is yellow because it is wheat.

    Telling alfalfa hay from wheat straw would not be hard, but try telling milo hay from sorghum straw — they're very similar plants, both are kinds of millet!

    Besides which, most farm kids DO know left from right because cows and horses know. And trying to milk a cow or harness a horse from the wrong side can get you killed. Animals have a nigh side and an off side, like port and starboard on a boat.

    Horses were trained to respond to gee and haw as right and left. Possibly because they are more vocally distinct that the common words? I don't know.

    But I have a dyslexic friend who confuses right and left very easily – so when giving directions, he has adopted the strategy of calling them Ralph and Louie. And those he never gets confused.

    Maybe that's the secret of hayfoot, strawfoot. Giving new names to your feet avoids using the circuits in your head that evaluate right and left (which are somewhat determined by circumstance and perspective).

    Port and starboard, gee and haw, nigh and off, Ralph and Louie, hayfoot and strawfoot — it's all the same strategy, isn't it?

  34. Joyce Melton said,

    June 30, 2010 @ 4:08 am

    Meant to mention that I was actually in the Army and learned to march. We were told that our left foot was our starting foot or strawfoot and to always start off with it, and to put a blade of grass in our laces if it would help us remember. But not to look down to see.

  35. Mark P said,

    June 30, 2010 @ 8:34 am

    Maybe the whole idea of using hay or straw or a blade of grass is not because it's easier to remember but because it gives a concrete reference to a particular foot. You might not be able to look at the foot to see which one has a blade of grass, but it should make it easier to remember which foot to start with if you have gone through the effort of putting a blade of grass on it.

  36. Vasha said,

    July 1, 2010 @ 12:20 am

    I just ran across another variant, in the novel Das Leben ist eine Karawanserei by Emine Özdamar. Describing the training of recruits in the Turkish army at some uncertain period in the twentieth century, she wrote,

    »Zwiebel«, schrie der Hauptmann, das heißt links, »Knoblauch«, schrie der Hauptmann, das heißt rechts…

  37. Vasha said,

    July 1, 2010 @ 1:01 am

    Shouldn't have said "uncertain period", it's the "War of Independence" 1919–23.

  38. Q. Pheevr said,

    July 1, 2010 @ 4:34 am

    Did they actually put onions on their left feet and garlic on their right, or did they just call them thus?

  39. Cracked on Language Mind-Control – Fully (sic) said,

    November 15, 2010 @ 9:45 pm

    [...] that mean that they can't describe left and right, or just that they prefer not to? See also LanguageLog's analysis of the Nicaraguan Sign Language's left-right dilemma. What gender does a French/Spanish [...]

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